The key to Antoine Fuqua’s remake of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (which is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai) is that it genuinely loves the western genre. Although westerns were, at one point, second only to musicals as the most popular type of movie, their appearance in movie theaters is now awfully rare. When they do pop up, the films in question tend to be dark reconstructions and bleak commentaries on the desperation and moral compromises made in the wild west. I love Unforgiven and The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, although they come across more like reflective, post-modernist responses to the tropes of Cowboys and Indians movies than the real thing. While John Wayne made serious-minded classics (most notably John Ford’s The Searchers), his rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ movies tended to be escapist fare with a sense of fun. Although Fuqua’s re-telling of the classic story has an alarming amount of carnage, it’s a thrilling, violent ode to classic westerns.
Denzel Washington, standing in for Yul Brynner, plays Chisolm, a gunslinger hired to defend a town from a ruthless tyrant named Bogue (well played by Peter Saarsgaard). Chisolm rounds up a team of motley, somewhat dubious but skilled killers. Among the team Chisolm assembles includes a card-playing scoundrel (Chris Pratt), a legendary gunslinger (Ethan Hawke), a burly wild man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a Mohawk-sporting warrior (Martin Sensmeier). Their mission of revenge and justice seems impossible, as there’s only seven of them against dozens of Bogue’s men.
Fuqua’s recent The Equalizer queasily tried to fuse a nasty, blood-soaked revenge tale with a warm and fuzzy depiction of its murderous protagonist. Turns out The Equalizer is an advocate for the Boys and Girls Club of America. I realize that this reflects who Washington is in real life, but that movie felt like an odd platform for a noble cause.
On the other hand, Fuqua really had his heart in this one. He clearly loves westerns, as this isn’t a neo-western or another grim commentary on the horse opera. This is akin to the recent 3:10 To Yuma and a better western than either of Quentin Tarantino’s last two films. I enjoy bleak, modern westerns and was among the few who saw and admired Jane Got A Gun earlier this year. Yet, Fuqua has taken a non-cynical, transparently affectionate approach and made a gosh darn, no joke, great old-fashioned Hollywood extravaganza. I should end have ended that last sentence with “Yee Haw!” but I will restrain myself.
Washington exudes maximum charisma, which is no surprise, but he generously holds court without upstaging the rest of the ensemble. Pratt’s character is especially striking, as he provides welcome comic relief but displays a drunken mean streak. Hawke, D’Onofrio and Hayley Atwell are all first-rate, though the characterizations are slim. The movie is 132 minutes long but I would have been happier with an even longer running time. The characters and their foolproof tale are so enjoyable, 20 more minutes would have been fine with me.
While the structure of the story and a reprise of Elmer Bernstein’s classic score harkens back to the prior 1960 film, this is a film for its time. The updates and tweaks to the story work. There isn’t a static or uninteresting shot in the entire film, as Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is always moving, capturing great visions and meant for the big screen.
It’s not perfect (particularly the annoyingly obvious CGI in that last shot) but comes close. This is a far more exciting action movie than anything released last summer. It’s also a great western, which makes it a true rarity.